Friday, June 15, 2012 by Michael Kanin

Council OKs fee increases and hiring more permit review staff

City Council on Thursday approved increasing a slew of building and permitting fees up to 25 percent so the city can hire 14 new employees to reduce what has become something of an epic backlog in reviewing different types of permits related to development.

 

The increases will be assessed starting next month on dozens of fees the city charges builders and developers to obtain approval for site plans, building permits, safety inspections and the like. In all, the fee hikes will raise more than $318,000 in additional funds through the rest of this fiscal year.

 

City management will use about $252,000 of the new money to immediately hire 11 new employees for the Planning and Development Review Department and three inspectors for the Austin Fire Department.

 

“This whole issue of permitting and development review has become a major problem,” said Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell. “I am committed to doing everything I can to correct discrepancies. We have to get this situation under control.”

 

The Council’s approval of the higher fees and new hires came several weeks after members ordered City Manager Marc Ott to look into the causes of the “bottleneck” slowing construction projects going through the permit review process. Council members have said they have gotten “an earful” of complaints in recent months from developers and builders unable to get their projects approved.

 

As In Fact Daily reported on June 11, builders such as Burlington Ventures president Steve Buerlein, who is trying to build an apartment building, said instead of the usual 60- to 90-day process to get approvals to start construction the process may stretch to eight or nine months because of delays in getting required permits, reviews and inspections.

 

On Thursday, Harry Savio with the Home Builders Association of Greater Austin, told Council members that most homebuilders are supportive of the higher fees “if we know the fee increases are going to be used to cut our wait times, expedite processing and improve efficiencies. … If the increases could be tied to actual performance standards that the staff must meet I’d say we’d be even more enthused.”

 

But Savio also expressed concern that the new fees “accentuate a disparity” between the fees homebuilders, subdivision builders and remodelers pay compared with high-rise developers.

 

Council Member Bill Spelman summed up Savio’s position. “The general message is (that) it looks like there may be some subsidy by vertical developers to horizontal developers,” he said.

 

In a nutshell, “vertical construction” refers to the high-rise construction projects, such as the new and planned condo towers downtown. “Horizontal” is more along the lines of home building, remodeling and subdivision development.

 

Planning and Development Review director Greg Guernsey said most of the new hires would be assigned to address the flood of large towers going through the permitting process. “Most of these (new) positions would address the vertical construction rather than horizontal,” Guernsey said.

 

Despite his testimony, Savio seemed satisfied with the increased fees. “They need the staff,” he said. “If anything I said would result in a delay in hiring that staff, I take it all back.”

 

Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole said the city was willing to consult with Savio and homebuilders to make sure the changes result in improvements. “Let me just ask you to work with us and some of the other stakeholders that were involved and professional staff (to) make sure that, going forward, this big step that we are making…actually yields enough of the result that we are anticipating,” she said.

 

Guernsey said his department, which hasn’t raised most of its fees since 1993, plans to regularly review its fee structures. “Going forward…we’re going to look at these every three years.”

 

Comments? Questions? Tips? Email Mike Kanin at specialkanin@gmail.com.

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